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There’s none so blind as those who deny they cannot see

by Stephen Hesse

Buddhism teaches that all human suffering is rooted in greed, anger and ignorance. Whether true or not, it is clear that related human failings are compromising our planet: our material greed, our ignorance of natural systems, and most of all, our dogged denial.

Certainly these three factors share in the blame for Japan’s decision, on June 16, to restart reactors 2 and 3 at the Oi nuclear power facility operated by Kansai Electric Co. in Fukui Prefecture, a pronouncement made despite incomplete understanding of earthquake and tsunami dangers at the site, insufficient safety measures at the facility, and widespread public opposition.

Yukio Edano, the minister of economy, trade and industry, is quoted in The Japan Times of July 17, 2012, saying, “We have not necessarily gained acceptance from every single member of the public, but we think we have garnered a certain level of understanding.”

What truly heroic denial. The fact is that 71 percent of the Japanese public do not agree with a cavalier restart of the Oi reactors, according to poll results published in the Mainichi newspaper on June 4.

Given an alternative, such as comprehensive conservation measures and a blueprint for switching to safe, alternative sources of energy, it is likely that the vast majority of Japan’s residents would happily dump nuclear power forever.

As if to highlight the government’s myopia, a piece by Stefan Larus Stefansson, Iceland’s ambassador to Japan, appeared in the same July 17 issue of The Japan Times as Edano’s platitudes. That piece voiced incredulity that Japan has not yet tapped its vast geothermal resources for electricity generation and home heating.

Can Japan’s politicians really be ignorant of viable alternatives to nuclear or fossil-fuel power, such as geothermal energy?

Are they in denial that conservation, new energy-distribution policies, and the promotion of alternatives could make nuclear power obsolete and jumpstart Japan’s moribund economy?

Is it simple greed for the cash that Japan’s nuclear power utilities contribute to politicians?

Or is it all three — combined with the unspoken but widely acknowledged desire of those on the right to keep an independent nuclear-weapons capability within easy reach?

Unfortunately, denial is a worldwide problem that constrains decision-makers to status-quo thinking and conventional wisdoms. It also shapes the economic and environmental policies of governments in developed and developing nations alike.

The Asia-Pacific Human Development report released in May by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) is a good example. The 269-page report, titled “One Planet to Share: Sustaining human progress in a changing climate,” lays out the challenges facing the Asia-Pacific region and explains how we can move forward more wisely and safely, without making the same mistakes as earlier generations.

Recognizing that many of the planet’s ecosystems are approaching tipping points, the report states that “growing first and cleaning up later is no longer an option.”

Of course, at one time that was an option, and it remains a kernel of conventional wisdom among decision-makers worldwide — many of whom cite Japan as proof of this spurious logic.

However, the truth from Japan is that clean development is both possible and cheaper: More than two decades ago, this country’s Environment Agency (now the Environment Ministry) found that the costs of cleanup after Japan’s rapid development were five to 100 times higher than the costs if preemptive measures had been taken to prevent pollution in the first place.

These findings are documented in “Pollution in Japan — Our Tragic Experiences: Case studies of pollution-related damage at Yokkaichi, Minamata and the Jinzu River,” a report released in 1991 by a Study Group for Global Environment and Economics at the Environment Agency.

Still, conventional wisdom dies hard, and the UNDP report quickly drew media fire.

A day after the report’s release on May 10, the Times of India accused the UNDP of bias and took it to task for warning “that ‘inclusive growth’ would increase emissions, a trade-off India cannot afford” (m.timesofindia.com/articleshow/13089681.cms)

The article quotes an official from India’s environment and forests ministry as saying that the report “pits the issue of growth against environment — which is not a correct framework for analysis. It suggests that cleaning up first, and growing up later should be the option. This is like putting the logic on its head.”

Not to antagonize bureaucrats in a nation I love and visit each year with students, but I beg to differ: The report is not telling nations to “clean up first,” which is standing logic on its head. It is not possible to clean up until you’ve made a mess.

The report is simply suggesting that efforts should be made to pursue low-carbon development now in order to reduce future climate-change impacts on ecosystems and human settlements, to which developing nations are particularly vulnerable.

To ignore sound advice simply because it’s pedantic and doesn’t conform to bureaucrats’ own conventional wisdom confirms that denial is well rooted in the governments of our neighbors as well.

Admittedly, developed nations are to blame for the lion’s share of the pollution and resource exploitation that have compromised our planet’s ecosystems up until now.

The obvious corollary is that these same nations must take the lead in getting consumption under control and global development on a benign track.

But to refuse to learn from the mistakes of others — just because it’s others who made them and not yourself — is arrogance verging on societal suicide.

Here’s what the Japanese authors of that 1991 report, “Pollution in Japan — Our Tragic Experiences,” had to say about this more than two decades ago: “We hope this report will be useful for all policymakers who are engaged in making choices about economic development strategies in their countries.”

They went on to say, “After World War II, Japan underwent a period of reconstruction followed by a period of rapid economic growth. However, this process was undertaken without proper attention to the environment, and the result was serious pollution-related damage. It was only after experiencing this damage that Japan began implementing proper pollution-control measures.

“This curative approach was undesirable, though, not only because it was caused by serious pollution-related damage and the accompanying social discord, but also because it was not economically sound. The amount of money that would be expended on damage brought about by lack of proper pollution-control measures is much greater than the cost related to implementing measures that would have prevented such damage from occurring in the first place,” the authors unequivocally observe.

They go on to highlight that, “There were no adverse effects on the macro economy brought about by the implementation of these curative pollution-control measures. In fact, these strict pollution-control measures may even benefit the economy, as can be seen in the development of technology with low pollution levels and high productivity.”

In conclusion, the authors declare: “Assuming no pollution-control measures were taken, the cost of damages (represented by the real amount paid in compensation for real damages) were on the order of about five times to 100 times the costs for pollution control that would have prevented this damage.”

But “pay as you go” has little attraction for many bureaucrats and politicians, who prefer to spend now and have others pay later. Developing nations may not want to learn from Japan’s mistakes, but they fail to do so at their own peril.

So what is the UNDP calling for?

In brief, the “One Planet” report is urging proactive policies. “The countries of the developing Asia-Pacific are much less locked into the old, carbon-intensive ways of production and consumption,” states the report.

As a result, the region has the opportunity “to manage development differently.”

If countries in this region are going to surmount the challenges of climate change, they “will need to change the way they manufacture goods, raise crops and livestock, and generate energy,” says the report.

It calls for a transition to lower-carbon, climate-resilient development in the region, including more green technologies, reduced industrial emissions, the promotion of greener agriculture, support for cleaner energy generation, improved prospects for the rural and urban poor, more finance for the transition, more citizen knowledge and awareness of climate issues, and increasing trans-boundary cooperation within and beyond the Asia-Pacific.

For the full story you can download the report, or just chapters, for free from: asiapacific-hdr.aprc.undp.org.

Yes, the report might sound preachy, especially for nations wedded to doing things the old way. However, in light of the lessons Japan has learned, it is squarely on track.

We can’t change the past, but knowing what we know now, if the residents of Minamata, Yokkaichi, and more recently Fukushima, could have voted on which development and energy paths to take, I’m betting they would have chosen the paths of precaution and conservation.

And India still has a choice. As the world’s largest democracy, and a nation just starting its development trajectory, how about putting development issues on the ballot there?

In the land where Buddha gained enlightenment, perhaps there’s a glimmer of hope that politicians and bureaucrats might find wisdom to overcome the greed, ignorance, and denial that have hobbled so many other nations.

As an optimist, I’ll keep hoping. As a realist, I won’t hold my breath.

Stephen Hesse teaches in the Chuo University Law Faculty and is director of the Chuo International Center. He can be reached at: stevehesse@hotmail.com.